“Hello, fairies,” came the soft voice of the recorded announcement as we bounced over Fairy Bridge on the 10:30 bus to the small town of Port St Mary. The simple stone bridge was covered in a colourful collection of messages and ribbons, among other oddities, and, according to local superstition, it’s considered bad luck not to greet the bridge’s fabled residents. The narrow country road was lined by an arch of rain-soaked trees, adding to the feel of an enchanted world.
It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the Isle of Man: charming; mysterious; a little different.
I’d made my way to this small island in the Irish Sea on a stormy August evening by ferry from Liverpool. Considering the Isle of Man is just 265 miles from where I live in London, I knew surprisingly little about where I was going.
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For all its proximity to mainland Britain, the Isle of Man and its roughly 85,000 residents seem to fly under the radar. It receives relatively few visitors: just more than 300,000 in 2018. That’s certainly not a number to be sniffed at, but it pales in comparison to the approximately 2.4 million who visited the Isle of Wight, which is two-thirds its size. And despite the island being ringed by the United Kingdom – Northern Ireland to west, Scotland to the north, England to the east, and Wales to the south – the Isle of Man is not actually part of it.
The island was first settled by the Celts, then by the marauding Vikings who eventually established the Kingdom of the Isles that stretched up the west coast of Scotland. In 1266, The Perth Treaty between Norway and Scotland officially recognised the Isle of Man under Scottish sovereignty, which led to nearly a century of tug of war between England and Scotland – a battle eventually won by the English.
Today, like the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, the Isle of Man is a Crown dependency, meaning that while the United Kingdom is technically responsible for it, it remains separate, and politically autonomous – except in matters of defence and foreign affairs – even though the island’s inhabitants are British citizens. Likewise, as a dependency, it cannot be considered an individual Commonwealth nation, but because the UK’s Commonwealth membership includes the Isle of Man, it can compete in the Commonwealth Games – but separately from the UK of course. It’s also not part of the European Union, but is within the EU Customs zone.
Independence is a strong part of the character of the people of the island
“Independence is a strong part of the character of the people of the island. We’re not part of the UK, or the British Isles – we’re Manx,” said Phil Gawne, a former politician on the island and leading advocate for Manx heritage. (“Manx”, which comes from the Old Norse word “Maniske”, pertains to the Isle of Man, its people and language.)
I disembarked the ferry in Douglas, the island’s capital, and over the next few days as I criss-crossed the small island, I started to understand what Gawne meant.
Unsurprisingly, considering its geographical location, the Isle of Man feels like a patchwork of the British Isles. Gentle fields of southern England meet misty Irish hills around the village of Kirk Michael, while craggy Welsh coastlines merge with the drama of the Scottish Highlands as you climb to the island’s highest point, Snaefell mountain. On a clear day from atop this barren, wind-whipped summit, you can turn in a circle and see each country of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
But although the island feels British, it’s in a cosy, old-fashioned way you only occasionally find in the UK today. The classic red telephone boxes, many with a Yellow Pages telephone directory inside, are scattered throughout the island. A walk along the capital’s seafront promenade, with its grandiose Gaiety Theatre and neatly kept Edwardian-era guest houses, adds to the air of British familiarity – but feels closer to 1919 than to 2019. On first hearing it, the Manx accent sounds somewhat Liverpudlian, but seems to range in lilt and strength through the island, and I rarely encountered two people who sounded exactly alike.
“We’re occupying the space between. The Manx accent is a strange one, sometimes quite Scouse, sometimes you can hear the Irish intonation in it,” said Dr Breesha Maddrell, director of Culture Vannin, the government's cultural wing.
And in that charming way that the Isle of Man has to confuse and confound, the island has its own language, too: Manx Gaelic, the island’s historical language, which shares linguistic roots with Scottish and Irish Gaelic and is thought to have been brought to the island around 5AD by the Celts.
The 19th and 20th Centuries saw a dramatic decline in the usage of Manx, with it being increasingly viewed by island residents as a backward language. “During the 1950s and ‘60s, a lot of Manx had to leave the island because of economic reasons and there was a general sense of decline. Manx speakers were thrown out of pubs in the 1960s and ‘70s. There was a generation who died out sometime around the 1990s who were strongly against the language,” Gawne told me.
In 1974, the last native Manx speaker (defined as one who spoke it as a first language) passed away, and in 2009, Unesco somewhat hastily declared the language extinct, despite there being a primary school on the island that only taught in Manx. Children from Bunscoill Ghaelgagh school famously wrote to Unesco posing the obvious question: how can our language not exist if we can write in it?
“We were told that the language we use every day to play and to learn about the world was extinct and that nobody spoke it,” said Isla Callister, a student in the school at the time. “So we sent the letters to show that they couldn’t be more wrong.”
Unesco quickly downgraded the language back to “endangered”, and Manx Gaelic has been battling back ever since, led by a passionate group of people. Central to the revival has been Bunscoill Ghaelgagh which teaches entirely in Manx. But the language classes are not merely limited to children, with many adults taking up Manx, too.
“This fierce little language has risen from the fire like a phoenix,” Maddrell said.
This fierce little language has risen from the fire like a phoenix
A 1961 census recorded just 165 speakers on the island; today that number is more than 2,000. Poetry and music have been fundamental to its revival, and groups regularly perform in Manx across the island, with genres varying from traditional folk music to rap. Interestingly, the decline in the use of Manx from the 19th Century onwards inevitably led to gaps in the lexicon, which has allowed for an almost pioneering freedom, with new words and phrases being created to adapt Manx to the modern world. Just last year, “tholtan” (meaning “a ruined barn” or “cottage”) and “skeet” (“a quick a look”) were added to the Manx dictionary.
“We have many words for jellyfish, but what we like the most is ‘smug rauney’, which translates as ‘seal snot’,” Maddrell told me, “and a swallow is ‘gollan geayee’, which means ‘fork of the wind’.”
While ambling along a quiet path near Port St Mary, I spied a black cat sitting nonchalantly ahead of me. On hearing my approach, it fled into the undergrowth. Not a particularly ground-breaking event, except that this was my first sight of a “rumpy”, the name given to a breed of cat native to the island born entirely tailless.
On my ascent of Snaefell, a giant wheel appeared in the distance, protruding out of a blanket of vegetation. My guide explained that this was “The Lady Isabella”, the largest working water wheel in the world, which sits above the old Great Laxey Mine.
And after making my first purchase on the island, I was slightly taken aback to find my change given in a currency I’d never seen but which felt oddly familiar. A Manx pound coin, which is at parity with sterling, looks incredibly similar to the old British pound coins, with perhaps slightly more rounded edges. And speaking of finance, the island has no capital gains tax, stamp duty or inheritance tax, making it an enticing prospect for many.
In the town of St John’s, I visited a small, grassy mound called Tynwald Hill, which has a strong claim to be the longest continuously used legislative site anywhere in the world. The first gathering at Tynwald is thought to have taken place in 979AD by the Vikings, providing a crude form of parliamentary governance some 236 years before England held its first. Today the two legislative chambers on the Isle of Man still meet on the 3.5m grassy hill, with the eye-catching, three-legged Manx flag fluttering above it, every year on Tynwald day, 5 July. Yet, for all its political and historical importance, Tynwald Hill, like the rest of the island, is wonderfully understated. I stood there completely alone on a warm summer morning, the occasional car creeping past on the main road.
Another day, I sat alone on the small carriages of a steam train running from Port Erin to Douglas – the service, one of three on the island, has been in operation since 1874. The train, one of those old-fashioned relics rarely seen and even more rarely ridden, clattered through the countryside, every now and again coming to a wheezing stop in a small rural village with a wonderful name like Ballasalla, where the train conductor would amble slowly down the platform and nobody would get on or off. Before you knew it, we were up to full speed and whistling through tunnels like it was the late 19th Century once more.
On the day I left, impenetrable fog and a biting cold had me checking my calendar to make sure it was still August. The Isle of Man is thought to take its name from Manannán, a Celtic sea god who was said to defend the island by conjuring mists to cloak it from invaders. As I stood on the stern of the ferry, the island shimmered slightly on the horizon then disappeared altogether. Invaders have come and gone, but it doesn’t take long to realise that what makes this little island so special is because of those who stayed.
Plus, it’s perhaps the only place in the world where a bus will remind you to greet the fairies.
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